- Melissa Isaacson, Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
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Lawrence Norman believes Derrick Rose will one day be the No. 1 basketball icon in all of China. Bigger than national hero Yao Ming, Asia's first NBA superstar; bigger than Nike client Kobe Bryant, who sells more jerseys in China than Yao.
"If you're from Shanghai, you may not grow up to be 7-6," said the vice president of global basketball for adidas. "But [Rose's] aggressive playing style and the position he plays and the fact that he's 6-3, all players, whether they live in Chicago or Shanghai, can [try to] be a point guard in the NBA.
"They love Yao Ming [who officially retired this week] but they aspire to be Derrick Rose."
Though Rose may not be as active in a competitive sense this summer as he was last, when he represented the U.S. in the 2010 FIBA World Championships, he will be busier off the court, traveling to China in August for an adidas marketing tour centered around the Bulls star.
On Wednesday night, he was on a plane bound for the Philippines for clinics and exhibition games with a group of NBA player against national and club teams there.
Establishing a presence in Asia is crucial right now for NBA stars. Not just because it can lead to added revenue and leverage during and after the league lockout, but because simply, China is the world's most populated country and basketball its most popular sport.
The recent NBA draft yielded the most European players in league history. But Asia, many believe, is where the real future lies.
"It's a monster market for the NBA and has been for years," said B.J. Armstrong, former Bulls guard and now one of Rose's agents.
"There is a golden opportunity in China for Derrick," Norman said. "We feel in the long term, he can be the No. 1 basketball icon and potentially the biggest sports icon in all of China."
Norman, a former pro player in Israel, says he makes such a bold prediction through his 15 years with the shoe company, and halfway through the company's long-term partnership with the NBA. That experience included a trip to China in 2004 with Tracy McGrady, who Norman described as the top star among Chinese basketball fans at the time.
"A lot of that had to do with the fact that he played on the same team as Yao Ming," Norman said. "Derrick Rose doesn't even need that. He's in the mecca of basketball in Chicago. They have the right colors, he has the right playing style, the right look and at the end of day, he is humble and puts the team first and in China, that's the most important thing.
"They have a different attitude there. When kids go to the playground in China, they go as a unit and then they want to stand out on the court. Derrick represents the best possible combination of personality traits."
But what about the landscape in the U.S. and in Chicago for NBA stars like Rose?
Larry Mann, executive vice president of rEvolution, a Chicago-based sports marketing agency, said he is surprised that Rose, who spends much of his offseason training in Los Angeles, isn't better established from a marketing sense, in his hometown.
"It's a shame," Mann said. "Just as a Chicagoan, the Bulls worked so hard to get back to where they are, as young as they are, and then for them and Derrick Rose to have so much momentum at the end of the season, [Rose's agents] should be shopping deals for him here. Keep him in the news locally."
At the same time, Mann, who is pessimistic about the NBA season starting before the start of 2012, said the NBA is a tough sell domestically at this time.
"I hate to say this but if you're a brand manager in the U.S., tying in with any NBA athlete probably is not the smartest marketing decision right now," he said.
Although those who deal with Rose on a daily basis know he is not the same shy kid who entered the league as a 19-year-old three years ago, his humble manner may not continue to translate in a competitive marketplace.
Rich Honack, marketing professor at Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management, said as appealing as Rose is commercially, he still needs more experience before the camera.
"There's a lot Jordan-esque about him," Honack said, "but what he doesn't have is Michael's smile. Michael didn't have to say a word, he just had to smile, and Derrick needs to work on that, on a connection with the people. He's such a good basketball player and so humble, but if you want to make more money and have more endorsements, you have to be careful not to be too humble."
For adidas, the combination of the unassuming Rose and the gregarious Dwight Howard works well.
"He's definitely starting to come out of his shell," Norman said of Rose, "and the vibe he gives comes off more as brotherly. People like him, they like to watch him. What's not to like?"
Adidas and Powerade are all in the process of strategizing new campaigns centered around Rose, with the tone and message a critical part of the process. But the companies, who, along with Chicago-based Wilson, make up three of Rose's biggest endorsements, all responded to the MVP award last spring. Wilson released a limited edition basketball, adidas had an MVP tribute commercial, and Powerade aired a congratulatory TV ad, a Chicago billboard and a pledge to donate $25 for every point he score in the playoffs, (which came out to their minimum promise of $15,000) to restore the basketball courts at Murray Park, where Rose grew up playing in his old West Englewood neighborhood.
Adidas is also designing a new shoe with plenty of input from Rose.
"And that's not typical [of most athletes]. Derrick really knows what he wants in a product and he has a unique style," Norman said, describing an "upscale, Gucci-esque material."
"It's his style off the court, and he's adamant that he really wants a product a kid can wear on and off the court, so he doesn't have to wear two different pairs of shoes."
In the meantime, as the NBA lockout drags on, expect more players to try to establish a presence in Asia. Nike, which counts Bryant among its major clients, reportedly spends more than 50 percent of its marketing budget in China.
And Bryant is a major star in China who had a reality television show there and in 2009 started the Kobe Bryant China Fund to raise money for education, sports and cultural programs for children from China and the U.S.
He also is in the midst of a five-city tour of Asia in which he is promoting Nike and conducting basketball clinics.
For Rose, Armstrong said, the emphasis continues to be on his team and his game.
"What he's doing is continuing to hone his craft," Armstrong said. "The formula is very simple. People want to go from A to Z and forget the steps in between. What happens [commercially] is a result of what he does on floor, not the other way around. And he gets that."
Armstrong offered Michael Jordan's enormous branding as an example.
"All of that would have been a sideshow if he hadn't won," he said. "The excellence comes with performing, that's the name of the game."
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.
Rose has all the makings of a superstar in the NBA's biggest market.